Expressiveness – or lack of it – in Playing Classic Repertoire


Growing up as student pianists in our teens we were likely to equate expressiveness with music of the Romantic period. Mozart and Haydn were less than full-blooded human beings next to Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, and of course Beethoven. Who would take seriously playing a Haydn sonata if the A-flat Polonaise were accessible to one’s fingers? For Schumann Haydn was like an old friend of the family – one was always happy to see him come, but one didn’t learn anything from him. Not infrequently one hears on recordings and in concerts the teenage pianist plus 30 or 40 years whose concept of a Haydn or Beethoven sonata is speed, an inflexible beat and unyielding tempo, and inattention to articulation.

A score of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven is comparable to the dots and lines in the engraved image of Washington on the dollar bill. The face, seen through a magnifying glass, is innumerable dots and lines and spaces; seen normally, these become the familiar visage. Walter Groppenberger, professor emeritus of piano from the University of Graz, has written a book soon to be published in German – “a study in lost treasures in the interpretation of Bach through Mozart to Schubert” – specifically, articulation slurs, appoggiaturas, dynamics, and basic touches – legato, non legato, portato and staccato – that have been covered by the accretions of Romantic pianism and editing.

In general sonority the piano is a colorful instrument; considering that an individual sound once produced cannot be altered, the piano is also a limited instrument, and therein lies the challenge of expressiveness in a thinner texture of fewer notes. This is a challenge to the imagination that C.P.E. Bach obviously had in mind when he wrote that there are many things in music that cannot be heard and must be imagined. He nevertheless had the feasibility with Bebung to alter a held note on the clavichord, giving the effect of vibrato – to our ears used to the modern piano scarcely perceptible, to Bach so very soulful. Especially in music of the Classic period the modern piano may become rather like riding an elephant through a flowerbed. How important then to play it as the instrument of illusion that it is.

The ubiquitous two-note slur, just by the way one lifts one’s arm (“lifting” the second note out of the piano), creates the illusion of inflection, of one pitch drawn into another pitch, of lifting a line up or down to a continuation of the melodic line. Ignore the two-note slur and, in a dotted figure, the short note may sound like an acciaccatura to the note of resolution. The appoggiaturas in the second subject in the exposition of the first movement of the Mozart A-minor Sonata indicate subtle stresses – expressive pulls – in a passage that would otherwise be like rattling off a meaningless sentence. In the same section, are you going to make a touch adjustment in the two measures of slurred sixteenths in contrast with the unslurred non legato? In measures 13 and 14 of the first movement of the Haydn C-minor Sonata in which the off-beat eighths are marked forte and the strong beat eighths piano, does Haydn mean simply loud-soft-loud-soft on the respective eighths or is he indicating expressive stretching the forte eighth? Notice the individuality of this music – the subtlety – in that the dynamic markings are missing in the same figure in measures 10 and 11 where Haydn indicated a slur. The reader is referred to Roberto Poli’s thought provoking The Secret Life of Musical Notation: Defying Interpretive Traditions published in 2010 by Amadeus Press and much to be recommended for serious study of the dimension of time in dynamics and rhythmic values.

Anton Schindler wrote that Beethoven played his works very rhetorically, and, in fact, the Bagatelle Op. 33 No. 6, marked Allegretto quasi Andante, has the further indication, Con una certa espressione parlante – With a certain [or definite?]speaking expressiveness. What are the characteristics of rhetorical playing? The forte-piano dynamic/agogic relationship in the Haydn example? The leaning on the next note realization of appoggiaturas? Playing with the eighth rests in the opening measures of Beethoven’s F-major Sonata Op. 10 No. 2? Played strictly in time the whimsical, keep-you-guessing quality remains unheard and unfelt.

It would seem that rhetorical playing and adherence to the metronome have an inimical relationship. In reality, one cannot have the former without an ingrained sense of the latter, for the expressiveness of articulation or rhythm or dynamics lies in the disturbing of the absolute beat; the expressiveness of changes of pace is likewise a meaningful disturbance of the norm. To fall in step with a sewing machine one metronomic stitch after another is to betray that the tailor has fallen asleep.